Japan . . . Japan . . . Japan. . . . These days one might be tempted to dismiss a book titled "The Japanese: A Major Exploration of Modern Japan." Haven't we had enough overviews of this nation? Fortunately, Peter Tasker's book is far more exciting, and important, than its bland title might suggest.
Originally "Inside Japan: Wealth, Work, and Power in the New Japanese Empire" when first published in Britain, this book is really about what makes modern Japan "tick"; it is about the motivating forces and spheres of influence in a very dynamic society.
"The Japanese" moves quickly from an introduction of the land to an in-depth, up-to-the-minute look at the context in which its people live: a group-oriented social milieu, an extraordinarily powerful media, an emperor system, labor unions, and the factional morass of Japan's de facto one-party government. Surprisingly few books on Japan discuss its media cornucopia, but Tasker includes an entire chapter, showing that adult Japanese read, in addition to literature and newspapers, steamy comic books; how a frenzy-prone press pursues the "fads" of the moment, whether they be a beautiful pop-star's suicide or the grisly deeds of a hardened criminal; and how on television the commercials are often more appreciated than the programming. Of the monolithic role of Japanese television, Tasker writes that a ". . . sense of group values (is) being reinforced by the vast quantity of vicarious experience that they have consumed together, more powerful than anything the individual encounters in his everyday life."
Readers unfamiliar with Japan may find some discussions of economic and political power rather daunting, if only for the density of information, but they shed great light on how the Japanese love of stability and continuity coexists with an innate tendency to factionalism, or how critical decisions in such a modern "democracy" are often still made in a centuries-old style. Of law and custom, for example, Tasker notes, ". . . in Japan they frequently appear to belong to different worlds. In one, the judges, the newspapers and the intellectuals, all subscribing to abstract codes of behavior; in the other, voters and their representatives still interacting in the time-honored way." To present two archetypes of Japanese politicians, Tasker cleverly contrasts the styles of former prime ministers Kakuei Tanaka and Yasuhiro Nakasone. And he also introduces the bureaucracy, labor unions, banks, trading companies, agricultural lobbies, and even that ". . . important wielder of the toasting fork in the demonology of Japan Inc," the Federation of Economic Organizations. To put Japan in a global, historical perspective, he concludes by analyzing the growing Japanese military and national attitudes to war and peace.
In books like this, which condense vast amounts of information, overgeneralization and error are traps waiting for the best authors. Tasker largely avoids them, but at one point casually asserts that ". . . a surplus of workers . . . is likely to be the main problem facing Japan in the years ahead" in a statement that may surprise many manufacturers worried about an aging work force, and young people reluctant to enter manufacturing. And when he enthuses over the vast number of television channels available in Tokyo (seven), his British perspective may not register with American videophiles who can access nearly 100 (many 24-hour) channels. Finally, Tasker states that a U.S. firm named Memorex developed the first video tape recorder, when presumably he means Ampex.
Certainly, in a book of this sort, footnotes are unnecessary, but who is Peter Tasker? How did he acquire this information? How wonderful it would be to learn of some of the personal experiences on which some of his observations are based.
But these are minor criticisms. Tasker, as one of a new generation of Japanologists, is well positioned to supply a badly needed new perspective on a new superpower. Too many books on Japan have been written by people lacking in language skills, or biased by their Judeo-Christian roots and a world view forged in American political/economic hegemony. Tasker, clearly steeped in Japanese language and culture, uses a wealth of insights to lead the reader beyond the beguiling facades of Japanese society, to probe a nation of enormous diversity and vitality, frustrating dogma and mind-boggling contradictions, and a complex mesh of social and factional groupings. And he does this with great wit, and a rare balance of criticism and affection. In his ability to distill vast amounts of information and astute observations into a highly informative and even entertaining book, he has performed a superhuman task. This book is a true-to-life snapshot of a rapidly changing nation.